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Information and History

The Future of Polar-orbiting Satellites:

On May 5, 1994, President Clinton made the landmark decision to merge the nation's military and civil operational meteorological satellite systems into a single, national system capable of satisfying both civil and national security requirements for space-based remotely sensed environmental data. Convergence of these programs is the most significant change in U.S. operational remote sensing since the launch of the first weather satellite in April 1960.

The U.S. government has traditionally maintained two operational weather satellite systems, each with a 30-plus year heritage of successful service: NOAA's Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite (POES), and DoD's Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP). Recent changes in world political events and declining agency budgets prompted a re-examination of combining the two systems.

On Oct. 3, 1994, NOAA, DoD, and NASA created an Integrated Program Office (IPO) to develop, manage, acquire, and operate the NPOESS system.

As an early step in the convergence process and the first tangible result of the NPOESS effort, Satellite Control Authority for the existing DMSP satellites was transferred in May 1998 from the U.S. Air Force Space Command to the NPOESS Integrated Program Office. The command, control, and communications functions for the DMSP satellites have been combined with the control for NOAA's POES satellites at NOAA's Satellite Operations Control Center (SOCC) in Suitland, Md. The DMSP satellites are being flown@ by civilian personnel at the SOCC. This is the first time in the 30-plus-year history of this DoD program that the DMSP satellites have not been flown by Air Force personnel. A backup satellite operations center, manned by USAF Reserve personnel, was established at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo. This interagency team effort has provided the U.S. government with new, state-of-the-technology satellite control equipment that has resulted in significant budgetary savings, as well as uninterrupted service to the end users.

The President’s FY2011 budget takes significant new steps. The White House has announced that NOAA and the Air Force will no longer continue to jointly procure the polar-orbiting satellite system called NPOESS. This decision is in the best interest of the American public to preserve critical operational weather and climate observations into the future.
  • The three agencies (DOD, NOAA and NASA) have and will continue to partner to ensure a successful way forward for the respective programs, while utilizing international partnerships to sustain and enhance weather and climate observation from space.
  • The major challenge of NPOESS was jointly executing the program between three agencies of different size with divergent objectives and different acquisition procedures. The new system will resolve this challenge by splitting the procurements. NOAA and NASA will take primary responsibility for the afternoon orbit, and DOD will take primary responsibility for the morning orbit. The agencies will continue to partner in those areas that have been successful in the past, such as a shared ground system. The restructured programs will also eliminate the NPOESS tri-agency structure that that has made management and oversight difficult, contributing to the poor performance of the program.
  • NOAA and the Air Force have already begun to move into a transition period during which the current joint procurement will end. A detailed plan for this transition period will be available in a few weeks. The agencies will continue a successful relationship that that they have developed for their polar and geostationary satellite programs to date. NOAA’s portion will notionally be named the “Joint Polar Satellite System” (JPSS) and will consist of platforms based on the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) satellite.
  • In addition, these Agencies have a strong partnership with Europe through the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) that will continue to be a cornerstone of our polar-orbiting constellation, and will ensure our ability to provide continuous measurements.
  • These changes to the NPOESS program will better ensure continuity of crucial civil climate and weather data in the future. Decisions on future satellite programs will be made to ensure the best plan for continuity of data.
  • While the Air Force continues to have remaining Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) polar-orbiting satellites available for launch for the next few years, NOAA launched its final polar-orbiting satellite in February 2009. Given that weather forecasters and climate scientists rely on the data from NOAA’s current on-orbit assets, efforts will focus development of the first of the JPSS platforms on ensuring both short- and long-term continuity in crucial climate and weather data.
  • NASA’s role in the restructured program will be modeled after the procurement structure of the successful POES and GOES programs, where NASA and NOAA have a long and effective partnership. Work is proceeding rapidly with NOAA to establish a JPSS program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC).
  • DOD remains committed to a partnership with NOAA in preserving the Nation's weather and climate sensing capability. For the morning orbit, the current DOD plan for deploying DMSP satellites ensures continued weather observation capability. The availability of DMSP satellites supports a short analysis (in cooperation with the partner agencies) of DOD requirements for the morning orbit and solutions with the start of a restructured program in the 4th quarter of fiscal year 2011. While this study is being conducted, DOD will fully support NOAA's needs to ensure continuity of data in the afternoon orbit by transitioning appropriate and relevant activities from the current NPOESS effort.


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